“It is the struggle itself that is most important. We must strive to be more than we are. It does not matter that we will not reach our ultimate goal. The effort itself yields its own reward.” – Gene Roddenberry
Star Trek is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. I doubt there is person out there who doesn’t know what Star Trek is. Everyone at some point tends to utter the famous phrase that is associated with the original series opening: “Space, the final frontier…”. As a reader you will undoubtedly have read that in the exaggerated phrasing of William Shatner. Some might hear the gravelly voice of Leonard Nimoy. Perhaps you heard the Shakespearian excellence of Patrick Stewart. Avery Brook‘s deep baritone might be your voice of choice or was it Kate Mulgrew’s sardonic drawl? Heck even Scott Bakula‘s voice might have charmed its way into your head, that is how much Star Trek is ingrained into the pop culture psyche of multiple generations. We each hear our own Captain.
Since the show’s launch in 1966, Star Trek has pushed multiple boundaries. Creator Gene Roddenberry wanted to use the out of this world setting to address the issues that the people of Earth are still dealing with to this day, but also showing that acceptance and tolerance are a key element to our way of life. In all its iterations Trek has been very much a social commentary on the world we live in. Its characters are a smorgasbord of internal and external strife. People of outstanding character, but who still have the same everyday flaws that live in all of us. They show us the viewer that the betterment of humankind is something to strive towards, and that ethics and good moral standing are something that should be aspired to, not demeaned.
Trek has inspired so many of this planets best and brightest to follow their dreams. Forging careers in fields such as Engineering, Astrophysics, Aviation the list of Trek inpisred career choices is endless. The majority of the people involved in both NASA’s and the ESA’s space programs are huge Trekkies. Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti famously cosplayed Captain Kathryn Janeway while she was one of the inhabitants of the International Space Station. She managed to convince the payload to team to allow her to pack her Voyager uniform as well as some decent coffee as part of the very limited luggage allowance, just so she could actually look the part while on board.
In the documentary The Captains William Shatner tells the story about the head of an aeronautical engineering company who Shatner had chartered an airplane from. He insisted on meeting Shatner on the tarmac as he landed so he could thank him for inspiring him to choose the career and business he now owned. Shatner confesses that he often heard things like this from fans, but never really paid them any attention. This revelation made Shatner reevaluate his outlook on the role of Captain James T. Kirk. He began to attend fan events after this. Embracing the fact that he had been a huge influence on so many fan’s lives.
NASA embraced the very essence of the Show. Collaborating with the actors and creative team on numerous projects. During the ’80s Nichelle Nichols was an active recruiter for NASA. Helping to bring in the best and brightest talent for their space programs. At the rollout of the Space Shuttle Enterprise in 1976 Gene Roddenberry and the majority of the cast were present to help commemorate the occasion
Think about all that for a second. A science fiction TV show that had run for just three seasons before being cancelled had a cultural impact so huge that following a letter writing campaign by the fans, NASA decided to name their new Space Shuttle after Kirk’s ship. In 1976 there were no Trek movies, the show was being watched around the world thanks to syndication and re-runs. Its fan base was growing and growing. Conventions were gaining in popularity. Fans were attending these events in home made costumes. Star Trek cosplaying was a thing before the term had even been invented.
Technology and Science also owes a great deal to Star Trek. Who didn’t imitate Captain Kirk calling the Enteprise after they got their hands on their first flip phone? Look at the design of tablet computers based against the PADDs that are used throughout the show. There is a device called the Scandu Scout which is heavily influenced by the medical tricorder. NASA are also trying to develop a full functioning warp drive. This will enable its astronauts to travel great distances in a fraction of the original time.
Star Trek is responsible for planting the seeds of conscience and tolerance in the minds its fanbase. One of its key abilities was being able to tell a story set hundreds of years in the future, but at the same time able to make it relevant to the world we live in today. It is responsible for being a moral compass to a lot of fans. Instilling its viewers with a solid basis of right and wrong. While also showing us how human kind can better itself through peace and knowledge. Thanks to the sci-fi setting the writers were able to push the boundaries of storytelling. Often hiding taboo subjects in plain sight.
Storylines within the show address issues like racism, LBGT equality, genocide, medial ethics the list is endless. The original series episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ is famous for having the first on screen interracial kiss. In the episode ‘Let This Battlefield Be Your Last’ racism is dissected and explored. These are topics that during the late ’60s were causing people to march and protest on the streets, but here they were being covered in a prime time sci-fi show that was being watched by millions. There is a well known story concerning Nichelle Nichols: She was considering quitting the show. Then she met Martin Luther King Jr. who was a huge fan of hers and the show. He implored her to stay on. She was a role model for millions of black women in a time of strife for them in America.
A trend that continued with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Episodes like ‘The Measure Of A Man’ which saw Riker and Picard facing each other in a court room. Each arguing a side of a case concerning Commander Data’s right to be considered a free man and not property of Starfleet. The episode ‘The Outcast‘ Commander Riker falls in love with a member of a genderless race, who has identified as female from an early age, but has been living with the secret. When the truth is revealed she is persecuted by their own people who see gender recognition as a crime.
Deep Space Nine and Voyager both follow suit. DS9 episodes like ‘Duet’ and ‘The Pale Moonlight’ look at the consequences of war, addressing what happens when someone goes against their own morals in order to achieve peace or conquest. Both episodes contain amazing performances from all involved. When it comes to outstanding performances on Voyager, the episode ‘Latent Image’ is easily one of the highlights. It sees the Doctor trying to figure out why part of his memory has been erased. He discovers that following a break in his stability he is simply reprogrammed without his knowledge, being treated like a tool rather than a full member of the crew. Robert Picardo is outstanding in this episode.
As a fan Star Trek instilled me with a sense of tolerance and acceptance towards my fellow human being. Growing up through the ’80s and ’90s watching each of the captains as they led their crews through countless adventures. I gleaned something from each of them. Kirk taught me how your closest friends are your strongest allies. Picard taught me a sense of diplomacy. Sisko taught me to fight hard and never give up. Janeway taught me that no matter how tough a situation a solid team behind you will see you through it and Archer showed me how to meet the unknown head on.
Personally, I firmly believe the show’s absence over the last 11 years has been felt on a social scale. I may be guilty of sugarcoating this, but I firmly believe that Star Trek showed multiple generations how striving to be a better person and accepting your fellow man as an equal is a noble and worthy goal. TV doesn’t have anything like it right now. Shows are filled with Anti heroes who a have a disregard for their fellow man. Ethically shady characters or idiotic personas are given the spotlight over straight laced intelligent characters. The only show that comes close to having something resembling a ethical standpoint is Doctor Who, but even then The Doctor is prone to bouts of genocide for the greater good. Star Trek Discovery will hopefully mark a return to form of a show that needs to be on our screens again.
Gene Roddenberry gave the us a universe that enabled its fans to learn how to traverse our own. Free from prejudice and hate or at least its gives us the hope of the creation of that world. In Star Trek mankind reaches for the stars and dreams of being more than the sum of its parts. And for a while we as viewers feel that maybe we can dream that one day we will boldly go with them.